Armor off and asking Who

Photo by Rob Du Bois,

Last weekend Andy and I led a marriage seminar at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. 200 people signed up to give up 5 hours of their Saturday to come and learn from us.
For six months, this event has been a source of low grade terror for me.  Andy and I don’t really feel like we’ve got this marriage thing anything close to figured out, but they kept asking and insisting that they didn’t want experts, just people willing to be real and help them think about it from a new perspective, so here we were.

We met and prepared – like actually set meetings three times a week for several weeks to discuss content.  The week of, I bought a brand new shirt, set an appointment to have my hair done, and spent time going over and over my notes in my head, wondering if I would have the courage to do this thing. 

And then, two days before we left, our daughter got violently ill, and vomited all night long.  I lost lots of sleep, promptly broke out in a robust cold sore, was forced to cancel my hair appointment, and all my last minute seminar prep time was taken up with taking care of a sick kid and scrambling to catch up with work, and the next thing I knew we were on a plane, come as you are. 
The night before it began, I laid there in the darkness feeling frightened at every stomach rumble that the sickness Maisy had suffered would get me or Andy, and one of us would be forced to sit on the stage solo, or both of us would be running off the stage to the bathroom unable to finish the day.

We arrived the next morning sleep deprived with pepto bismol in my purse to a room filled with couples eagerly awaiting our wisdom.  Just before we were introduced, a woman leaned over to me, and looking cheerfully at my brand new shirt, she whispered, “Did you get that shirt from Stitch Fix? I just got the same one!”
And with that, the last of my armor was stripped away and I took the stage, in front of the lights and video and 200 expectant faces.

I took a deep breath, and then I opened my mouth and told everyone how scared I was to be there. How Andy and I don’t really feel comfortable talking about our marriage – even to a therapist, and how, in all our years of marriage and behind the scenes work collaboration, we’ve never taught anything together in front of people before and really had no idea how it would go.  I shared my longings for them and for this time – that we would encounter God and each other, that learning and connection would happen – and then I invited them to stop and think about what they were feeling and needing and fearing and hoping for our time together.

And from there, something happened. 
All the things I thought I needed to feel secure no longer mattered.  I was a person, inviting them to be people with me.  As a friend buoyantly responded, paraphrasing part of this passage for me, “Those who try to save their dignity will lose it, but those who give up their dignity for my sake will save it!”  It means being truly human.

Andy and I were kind of flayed open up there on those shiny stools with our fancy headset mics – showing parts of our relationship and ourselves that we’ve never really shown before.  We talked about how we get so trapped in the ideal- always asking how questions, how to be a better spouse, how our marriage should be, how I deserve to be treated, how I am being treated – questions of comparison and judgment, questions that, in the best of times, leave us feeling just short of the ever-elusive goal.
But in the way this whole being human and life in kingdom of God, and Jesus with us, thing works, the questions we’re invited to ask are actually who questions. Who is this person in front of me? Who am I?  In all our mystery and messiness, our beauty and brokenness, who are we? 

Jesus asks a question and throws his friends for a loop.  He starts by inviting them to describe stories, report rumors, recap the buzz.  Who do people say that I am? 
Fun game, ok!
Some say this, others that, you know.
But then he asks them what must feel like a frighteningly vulnerable thing- both to ask and to be asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Imagine asking that of your spouse, your brother, your close friend, your daughter.  Who would you say I am?
Not, How would you describe me?
What are my defining characteristics, my strengths and weaknesses? 
But look at me. Really see me. In your words, who am I?

Perhaps the deepest and most difficult question most of us spend a lifetime with, is, Who am I? And just when we think we have a grasp on it, we keep changing, (slippery old us!) and we have to keep wrestling with it anew.
Who am I, now that my partner has died?
Who am I, now that I have this diagnosis?
Who am I with this newfound freedom?  This person to love? This job that inspires me?
Who am I now that I am suddenly responsible for this tiny new being? 
Who am I when I’ve done something so horribly outside what I thought I was capable of?  When I can’t take back those words, when I can’t repair that breach?
Who am I when who I thought I was has changed?

Who am I? is a scary question, and one we rarely, if ever, invite others to contemplate with us. 
But Jesus opens up his chest and asks them to peer inside,
Who am I, would you say?

And right away, Peter, who has been waiting for this chance, who has been mulling this question in those moments of deep thought before sleep creeps up to deliver you, who has given up a perfectly stable career to follow this guy around because the question has so intrigued and compelled him and now he’s finally invited to issue his conclusion, and, frankly, is thrilled at being asked, answers, “Why Jesus?! You are the Messiah!”
And oh, it feels great to say it! To say it outloud because it summarizes everything Peter has longed for and all that he hasn’t put words to until now.  God is saving us! Before my eyes every day I see the promise made real – in his words, in his healing, this is it! He is it! We are being delivered from all that is broken, the fulfillment is here and I am ready to declare it!
So face beaming in confidence and trust, he delivers his pronouncement. Most likely he is expecting a hug. Or some kind of praise for his astute observations.  Affirmation, at least. Yes, Peter, you hit the nail on the head, you. *nuggy*

But not this. Not Jesus’ diatribe about suffering, humiliation and death. 
Not this ideological whiplash.
What you say is true. I am the Messiah.
But I do not think it means what you think it means. 
Messiah means I’ll suffer. It means I’ll die. It m
eans that as hard as all this is, it’s going to be doubly hard on me and on those who follow me.

And Peter is rattled. Jesus, what are you saying? I’ve seen what you are! You are here to save us all!  Stop this crazy talk!  You’re stepping way outside the definition of you that I’m comfortable with.
And then Jesus sharply rebukes him, (which had to sting), and he then calls the crowd around him and tells everyone what Messiah really means.

Who am I?
Not your hero, after all. Not the fulfillment of all your wishes and dreams, who ends your distress and solves all problems and make everything better. I am not the one who saves you out of all this.  I am the one who joins you in all this.

In some way, everyone at that marriage seminar last weekend, including Andy and me, represent the desperately misguided thing it is to join your life to another person and think you’re going to come out unscathed.

I would love to be at a wedding sometime and hear a preacher tell it like it really is.  Eyes twinkling, opening jokes aside, he’d lean in and catch the couple’s gaze and hold it.  Then he’d say, perhaps a bit sternly, You two love each other; that’s good. You’re really going to need that. Because this thing you’re about to do is a lot harder than it looks. And sometimes you are going to want out.

He’d ignore the uncomfortable shifting of the people in the pews, and plow onward, speaking only to the couple on the brink of this life commitment.

And there are things about yourself you are going to wish you could change, and this other person is going to see all of that over the years.  And you are going to watch them change in ways that you like and in ways you don’t like so much, and also they’ll stay the same in ways you might secretly be hoping will change.  The point is, it’s messy. 
And it isn’t going to be easy, loving, choosing to love, every day, being who you are, accepting who they are.  You will be surprised again and again, and drawn into deeper mystery, fresh discomfort, and new discoveries.

And guess what? Your life doesn’t really belong to you anymore.  You’re losing it. From now on, you are his; she is yours. Car crashes, cancer, heartbreak and breakdowns – when they come, you will carry hers far heavier than your own, and when he suffers great loss, it will carve you out inside.

And now we would all be silent, not a cough or wiggle among us, watching the couple watching the pastor, taking it all in, weighing his words.

And if you have kids, when they come you’ll lose your life all over again – all the things you thought made you you, all the freedoms you enjoy and the capacity to worry just about your own self and each other- that disappears – your life belongs to them now. You will worry about them and shape your days and your nights around them, and you’ll sacrifice for them and see them and love them for who they are in ways that will break your heart over and over again.

But please hear this: in losing your life, you will gain it. Because to belong to another is the most precious thing there is. You are theirs.  They are yours. In all this vast world, the mystery of this other is a gift to belong to, and you give to them belonging as well. This is the power of love – it takes away your life and gives it back in breathless beauty and shocking suffering that is shared and given and known.  And this, my dears, this is what it means to be truly alive.

And maybe for a moment, before the evening disintegrates into nostalgia and schmaltz, we will all feel a little awed at what it is to be blessed human beings, gifts to each other, sitting here together in all our messy and mysterious glory and need.

Jesus looks at his beloved disciples, and at the crowds of people gathered around  unaware of what is coming for him, this moment frozen in time while they still see him as invincible savior and he sees the cross ahead. 

And he pauses, and takes a deep breath, filled with the ache of loving them in all their misguided expectations, looking into all of their hopefilled faces, and prepares to break through their illusions. The Messiah doesn’t get to swing into this life and rescue people out of it without touching down.  Every single place of grief and separation boring into our gut he shares with us, every single breakdown of trust, loss and tragedy wrought between us, every person who goes to bed hungry, angry or painfully alone, he is there, holding it with us, joining us in it.  His life is already entirely lost for our sake.

And then he breaks it to them, This Messiah gig is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Yes, I’m the Messiah.  That means I belong to the world, to each and every one of you, and in me the whole world has its belonging.  And so to follow me means opening up your heart as well, to all the world, and to every beloved, befuddled mystery of a person made in the image of God.  

It means feeling the suffering they feel, taking on each other’s burdens, standing with and for one another when the going is hard, accepting being misunderstood, getting angry but loving anyway. Sticking it out as a person who belongs to many others and to whom many others belong.  It means losing all you thought was your life and strength and dignity and armor.  It means being truly human.

This is not an easy life, being the Messiah.  And neither is it easy following the Messiah.  This is a real life you’re signing up for, Jesus wants them to know.  It’s not romantic escapism, or a religious formality; there’s no formula or protection or ideal. No, it’s actually the death of all that. It’s agreeing to the raw and often painful, a life lived wide-awake and open to hurt. 

How does God save us? How are we supposed to live? How should I feel if I am living like I should be?  How can I be a good Christian? A good person?
Lose the how questions, Jesus invites, and take up the who. 
Who is this - who calls us to follow him into the heart of suffering, the very heart of love?
Who is this – who confounds our definitions and draws us ever nearer?
Who is this - who pulls us away from answers and conclusions, and invites us instead into mystery, and belonging, and the power of love to take away life and give it fully all at once?

And we, with our own who am I?s - our relentless seeking is lifted to the One to whom we belong, the One in whom our selves are found and never lost, and here we are invited to venture that trembling and vulnerable inquiry – What about you, God? Who do you say that I am? 
Because I want to be that. How you see me.
If it is generous and brave and forgiving,
if it is daring to love and open to life and risking for others, I want to be that. 

And I want that thing where Jesus brushes aside what everyone else says about who he is and asks me himself, Who do you say that I am?
And I don’t want to be afraid when the answer surprises me, or makes me uncomfortable, when it isn’t as clean and pristine, or as strong and invincible as I had hoped. I want to be drawn in to try to answer it again and again each time I see God’s love and grace, and not to foreclose and accept how others define God for me, or how I think things are supposed to be.  I want to step into the vulnerable place to be asked by God, invited by God, Are you willing to follow where I go?

We spend so much of our energy on saving our lives. Building up our armor. Working on the how, crafting others’ perceptions of us, hiding the darkness and the weakness and the shame within us, protecting ourselves from the darkness around us, going after safety and doing whatever we can to make ourselves feel secure.  We live in the how and guard ourselves from the who.

But when we let go, when lose our lives, and all the control we had over shaping and protecting it, when we let ourselves be seen, when we let the truth of our humanity come to light, alongside each other, with and for each other, denying our selves, taking up our cross and following, that is when we are found.

That is soul ripping open to the world’s pain and beauty in each precious fellow child of the Divine.  That is love taking hold, and belonging setting in. That is watching your life become both utterly lost and joyously saved.

If that’s where you want to go, you guys, I will go there with you.
We can be brave together.

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